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School of thought for tomorrow’s leaders

Now in its ninth decade, the Oxford Summer School prepares managers to tackle the challenges ahead.

The fashion industry was faced with a big problem. The status of those working in retail had plummeted, and as a result the quality of the people coming into the industry had dwindled. The industry’s leaders had to come up with a solution.

The problem might sound familiar, but it’s not 2009, it’s actually 1923. The solution the Drapers’ Chamber of Trade came up with was the Oxford Summer School, a residential course designed to train the industry’s leaders of the future.

Last week, the Summer School was held for the 80th time – having had a six-year hiatus for the Second World War – and 212 delegates from 62 companies gathered in Oxford’s Keble College
for the week-long residential course, which remains a unique opportunity for up-and-coming retail managers to learn the skills it will take for them
to get to senior roles in the industry.

Now under the auspices of the British Shops and Stores Association (BSSA), the course has a remarkable track record. Former Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Richard Greenbury is an alumnus, while other graduates include Jaeger chief executive Belinda Earl, former Aquascutum boss Kim Winser, Harrods fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee and ex-Moss Bros chief executive Philip Mountford.

The course is deliberately intensive. Once students arrive in the historic confines of Keble College on Saturday, they rarely leave, if at all, until the next Friday. The course is based around a group project where, in 25 small groups under the guidance of a more experienced retailer, delegates devise the strategy for a new retail chain, looking at all aspects of the business, from finance to marketing and merchandising.

They are helped by dedicated lectures on key aspects of the business from industry experts, and also receive talks from the industry’s leading names.

The course has benefited from strong support from some of the sector’s biggest retailers. John Lewis has sent a delegate every year since 1923, and the partnership’s chairman Charlie Mayfield followed a long tradition by speaking at the event this year, while the director of John Lewis’s Brent Cross store in north London spent the Thursday night assessing the group exercises before giving feedback to the teams the following morning.

Fellow department store chains Harrods, Fenwick, Harvey Nichols and House of Fraser are also long-standing supporters. “It delivers a rich learning experience with fun and flair and with Oxford’s magnificent setting as its backdrop,” says Fenwick managing director Adam Fenwick.

Given the tougher times, some retailers have cut back on the number of delegates they send, but nevertheless some have returned, with Debenhams and Matalan sending delegates for the first time in years this year, and etailer Asos sending its first ever delegate.

The Summer School is proud of its traditions. A Sunday church service is held for the delegates, and the final-night ball is a black tie affair complete with renditions of Jerusalem. But Stan Kaufman, former managing director of department store Allders, who heads the Summer School Committee, points out that the School also moves with the times, with this year’s speakers including Asos chief executive Nick Robertson to give some multichannel insight. Kaufman says: “It’s all about tradition, but if it has cobwebs it’s no damn good.”

Given the pressures on time and budgets it’s a big decision for retailers to allow their managers out of stores or head office for a week, but it’s testament to the course that so many do.
The reason is that when the managers return, they are more rounded retailers, ready to tackle the challenges that the next stage of their careers will bring. 

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